Thoughts about Halo: Race and Violence and the Muslim Superhero
Set in the DC universe, North American animation television series Young Justice (2010-) follows a large ensemble of superheroes who undertake various covert missions. While iconic figures such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman do make fleeting appearances, the programme deliberately spotlights lesser-known characters and sidekicks (Fig. 1). The first season followed the first Robin, Aqualad, Kid Flash, Superboy, Miss Martian, and Artemis. The second introduced a plethora of new team members but mostly focused on the second Blue Beetle and Impulse, the Flash’s time-traveling grandson. Now, the third and current season boasts a new set of protagonists – Black Lightning, Geo-Force, Forager, and Halo. Out of these three, Halo stands out as the most compelling, due both to how she fits into my own research on racialized bodies in fantasy and animation as well as how Young Justice depicts moments of violence enacted against her. In the episode titled “Royal We” (S3E02), a young woman wakes up in a mass grave. She has no memory of who she is or how she got there. Over time, she learns that she is the combination of two dead souls. One is of a Mother Box – a sentient computer from the planet New Genesis – that was dissected and destroyed. The other is of Gabrielle Daou – a refugee from the fictional Middle Eastern country of Qurac – who was kidnapped and killed by human traffickers. She ultimately rejects both identities, adopting the moniker Halo and the civilian alias Violet Harper. As this is a superhero show, she has superpowers; most notably, she can self-heal and resurrect. More so than her origin story or abilities, Halo is noteworthy for being explicitly coded as Muslim. This editorial interrogates the construction and ascriptions of that racial identity, emphasizing its impact on the other ways that Young Justice depicts the character of Halo.
In the construction of this character, the creative team on Young Justice made artistic decisions to incorporate visual and aural markers that ascribe a Muslim identity to Halo. In addition to her darker skin tone as well as voice actor Zehra Fazal’s performance of a generic Middle Eastern accent – a “brown voice,” to borrow a phrase from Shilpa Davé (2005) – the most explicit signifier is the character’s hijab. Even as an amnesiac, Halo continues to wear one because – as she says in the later episode “Private Security” (S3E04) – “It feels right” (Fig. 2). Her eventual superhero outfit, first featured in the episode “Evolution” (S3E07), even sports a hood that imitates its shape. Even if she denies the identity of Gabrielle Daou, Halo retains this signifier of Muslim-ness. Aside from sleep, she is only shown without her hijab twice. First, it is destroyed in a fight with Plasmus in “Eminent Threat” (S3E03). Second, in “True Heroes” (S3E13), after her powers stop working and she is attacked, its absence accentuates her vulnerability. Even without overtly discussing the tenets of Islam, the character’s close association with her hijab positions her closely in relation to this real-world religion (Fig. 3).
Halo is the only major character in Young Justice marked as Muslim, and because of the fraught history of depicting practitioners of this religion in Western media and because these qualities are augmented by the medium of animation, questions arise about the nature of this representation and re-presentation. It seems appropriate to invoke the Riz Test, created by Sadia Habib and Shaf Choudry, to engage with Young Justice and its depiction of Halo as a racialized character. For those unfamiliar, when a piece of media features an identifiably Muslim character, the Riz Test asks are they:
· Talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of terrorism?
· Presented as irrationally angry?
· Presented as superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern?
· Presented as a threat to a Western way of life?
· If the character is male, is he presented as misogynistic? Or if female, is she presented as oppressed by her male counterparts?
If the answer to any of the above is “Yes,” then the corresponding text fails. For more on the Riz Test and its applications, I recommend this article by Zahra Khosroshahi (2019). I would also like to emphasize the importance of these types of tests for the analysis of racialized bodies in animation, a medium in which crewmembers have greater control over them than in live-action filmmaking. For now, I want to focus on how Halo and Young Justice relate to these criteria. I would argue that the programme passes the Riz Test thanks to its depiction of Halo as a Muslim character. For example, Halo is not presented as connected to terrorism, irrationally angry, superstitious, or a threat to a Western way of life. By not fitting into these stereotypes perpetuated by so much Western media, the show affords her an individuality rare for explicit depictions of Muslims (Fig. 4). However, Halo’s portrayal is more complicated.
The biggest issue is how much Halo exists in isolation from both fellow Quracis and fellow Muslims. An undue burden of representation has been placed upon her. Qurac as a space is infrequently seen in the show. When it is, the focus is either on the superhero protagonists – like in “Bereft” (S1E09) – or on Western civilians – as in “Image” (S1E21). The neighboring Bialya has more screen time, but this country and its supervillain ruler are more aesthetically aligned with Ancient Egypt than contemporary Islam. One of the most interesting and subtly radical aspects about the depiction of Halo and of Qurac is how the show avoids positioning either one in relation to terrorism. Gabrielle Daou has been a victim of war, hate crimes, and human trafficking – but never terrorism. Even when the king and queen of the fictional Markovia are killed by Quraci meta-human in “Princes All” (S1E01), the act is framed as an assassination rather than as a terrorist attack. Still, aside from a few minor characters, Halo serves are the foremost representative of Qurac and the only one explicitly marked as Muslim. As a result, how Young Justice treats her in other matters – most notably, in relation to violence – is of particular interest.
While the first two seasons of Young Justice aired on Cartoon Network, the current run is being released on the streaming service DC Universe. As a result of this broadcasting shift, the content of the show has become markedly more mature. In addition to some language and more explicit sexual situations, the foremost change has been the depiction of on-screen violence. While never as ghoulish as the direct-to-video Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (Jay Oliva, 2011), the new third season is more explicit than its predecessors, and the most targeted character is Halo. In “Eminent Threat,” the lava-powered Plasmus grabs her by the head and holds her against the ground until she stops screaming (Fig. 5). In “Rescue Op” (S3E06), the martial artist Sensei snaps her neck. In “Home Fires” (S3E09), the alien bounty hunter Lobo shoots a harpoon through her back. During these encounters, the villains neglect to use equivalent lethal force against the other heroes, even those who had instigated the fight. Due to of Halo’s resurrection powers, these scenes have great thematic potential. This body that has experienced so much pain and trauma cannot die. Indeed, in the first example, the image of Halo suddenly sitting up and proclaiming that she’s “Not dead!” is a powerful one. Usually, though, these scenes centre the other characters. Her death in “Eminent Threat” provokes Black Lightning into using his powers again. Her death in “Rescue Op” is a catalyst for Geo-Force to realize his feelings for her. Her death in “Home Fires” serves the same narrative function as had she been temporarily knocked out, as everyone but Lobo knows of her resurrection powers at that point. By this third instance, these scenes start to feel gratuitous, especially given their relatively graphic nature. Equivalent death scenes – the neck-snapping of Olympia Savage in “Evolution” or the beheading of Ocean-Master in “Home Fires” – are tasteful by comparison. The fact that Halo can “take it,” can endure and recover from even the most extreme violence, does not erase the imagery used to depict her deaths. Her being a Muslim woman – the only one on the show – only exacerbates this uneasiness. Through the fantasy and animation of Young Justice, Halo’s body can recover from any violence or trauma. However, the real-life bodies she is positioned in relation to do not possess this power. We live in dangerous times, where violence against Muslims is at record highs. To see trauma repeatedly visited upon a Muslim body in such spectacular fashion, even when presented as outside of the context of terrorism and even when it serves to emphasize her apparent immortality, is disturbing in ways that Young Justice has been disinterested in confronting.
That all said, I do not wish to reduce Halo to these three scenes. There is much more to her depiction in Young Justice, and I look forward to seeing what happens with this character. With all due respect to creators Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo, who had envisioned Halo as a blonde American, I also hope that this version of her has a future in the rest of DC – be it in the comics, live-action shows, or DTV animations. I want to see what other writers – especially Muslim writers – do with her, with her Muslim identity and her relationship with trauma. In the meantime, the remainder of season three of Young Justice has started premiering on DC Universe, and I will soon see how these trends continue or are complicated.
A special thank you to Zahra Khosroshahi for providing feedback on this editorial.
Davé, Shilpa. “Apu’s Brown Voice: Cultural Inflection and South Asian Accents,” Main Street: Asian Popular Culture. Edited by Shilpa Davé, LeiLani Nishime, and Tasha G. Oren (New York: New York University Press, 2005): 313-336.
Khosroshahi, Zahra. “The Riz Test: how Muslims are misrepresented in film and TV,” The Conversation (22 Jan. 2019), available at: http://theconversation.com/the-riz-test-how-muslims-are-misrepresented-in-film-and-tv-110213.
Francis M. Agnoli is a doctoral candidate at the University of East Anglia, where is research focuses on the ascription of race to animated bodies in contemporary U.S. television animation. He has previously earned his MA at the University of Iowa and his BA at Loyola University Chicago. His work has been published in the edited collection Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres (Routledge, 2018).